Arts & Culture

Power of the pen in early America

5 min read

Brooks explores the uses and significance of Native American writing in Colonies

In 1747, three members of the Abenaki Native American tribe and their Mohawk ally posted a petition on a wall of an English fort in the Connecticut River Valley. The paper was small, but it spoke volumes.

Addressed to the General Assembly [of Massachusetts], the document — written entirely in English — gave notice that Abenakis and their allies were willing to help destroy the forts of English settlers that were cropping up throughout the Native region. With biting sarcasm, the writers explained that the English would save money by having to maintain and supply fewer forts. The Native Americans would only require a small fee for their helpful services. As a final jab, they signed the petition with a flourish that echoed English etiquette — “we are your very humble, obsequious servants.”

According to Lisa Brooks, assistant professor of history and literature and of folklore and mythology, the petition signifies more than skillful use of sarcasm and irony. It is one example among many, she says, where Native Americans used their English writing skills to resist colonization and reclaim land.

“As colonization progressed, many Native leaders adopted writing as a tool to deal with issues that were important to their communities,” she said. “They wrote petitions, gave speeches, and recorded local histories. Writing was an imaginative route to survival for these people.”

The uses and significance of Native American writing in Colonial America forms the basis for Brooks’ forthcoming book, “The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast” (University of Minnesota Press). Through her scholarship, Brooks aims to reshape the general perception that Native people were illiterate and entirely oral.

“The illusion of Native Americans as illiterate people was popularized by the writings of James Fenimore Cooper in the early 19th century. And those stereotypes persisted,” Brooks explained, including the notion that “if Indians did take up writing, they wouldn’t be Indians anymore — they would become handmaidens to the Colonial project.”

Documents like the Abenaki petition, said Brooks, demonstrate otherwise.

“These men didn’t vanish. They adapted to the circumstances and found a way to use Colonial tools to their advantage,” she said.

“The petition is not a type of document you see coming from the missionary schools,” Brooks added, referring to the system of education through which many Native Americans learned to read and write. “It’s protest literature — designed to push back the frontier — that makes nuanced use of English social conventions.”

Brooks drew the name of her book from a phrase that is mentioned repeatedly in Native American writings from the 18th and 19th centuries. “The Common Pot” was a metaphor that stood for community and shared sustenance, but also described the shape of the land itself.

“The Connecticut River Valley, or ‘Kwinitekw’ in Abenaki, was a central trade route for Native people,” Brooks said. “It was a deep, fertile valley that sustained people and provided a network of relationships to other tribes.”

By focusing on Native American writings that address relationships and riverways within the “Common Pot,” Brooks was able to reconstruct the political geography of 18th and 19th century New England from the Native American perspective. She drew from a wealth of materials in public archives, such as the Newberry Library in Chicago (where the petition is held), as well as state libraries and historical societies.

“People are often surprised at how much material is out there,” she said. “These accounts enable us to get closer to the conversations that were going on at the time about social and political upheavals.”

In addition to the Abenaki petition, Brooks discusses several other cases where Native writing played a key role in Native resistance. For example, she traces the petitioning efforts of the Mohegan tribe as they sought to reclaim subsistence grounds in the Colony of Connecticut. One of the leaders in the land case, Samson Occom, recognized that divisive Colonial influences were causing the Native people to turn against one another, thus jeopardizing their chances of winning back the land. Occom wrote several petitions and letters to address this concern and also recorded community councils where the issue was discussed.

“There were often many competing visions of what the political landscape should look like, even within particular nations or regions,” Brooks explained. “Writing was a tool to help bring the community back together.”

“The Common Pot” also addresses peace negotiations between the fledgling United States and the United Indian Nations, a federated group of tribes centered in the Ohio Valley. Two of the native leaders selected to forge the peace — Joseph Brant of the Mohawk Nation and Hendrick Aupaumut of the Mohican Nation — had highly dissimilar visions of what the new political landscape should look like, and wrote extensively about their opinions on the subject.

“These writings, from people with very different cultural backgrounds, allow readers to understand how separate tribes viewed contemporary political processes,” she said.

Brooks, who is herself a member of the Abenaki Nation, hopes that her research will have an impact on how early American history and literature is taught and studied.

“This book represents a turning around of the standard historical narrative, which typically starts with the Puritans landing,” she said. “I am trying to advocate that we should teach this to our children, to change how people perceive the landscape of American studies.”